Above photo credit to Holst Birthplace Museum.
Approaching Holst Birthplace Museum, one could be mistaken they were simply headed towards an old house in Cheltenham; situated in a row of impressive Georgian townhouses, the building is something of a hidden gem. Stepping inside feels like stepping back in time as one is enveloped in period charm.
The focus of the museum is twofold - Holst and his music, but also Victorian life. Gustav Holst was born in the house in 1874, and the Music Room in the house contains the piano where he composed ‘The Planets’, probably the work he’s most famous for. However, even for those with little interest in classical music, there is still much to find interesting in this museum, particularly its impressive art collection.
Holst grew up at a time when advances in technology were rapidly changing traditional home life. Middle class families had more disposable income and therefore lessening anxieties about the affordability of light, heat and food. As historian Judith Flanders observes, “the home was a microcosm of the ideal society, with love and charity replacing the commerce and capitalism of the outside world”. Reflecting this moment in time is the reason that the Holst Birthplace Museum is such a special place.
Beyond the domestic sphere, at the time of Holst’s birth only around 10% of Britain’s workers were employed in agriculture. This proportion continued to fall; illustrative of Britain becoming an industrial power, comfortably ahead of the rest of Europe in cotton, textiles, iron, steel and railways, and arguably also music. You get a sense of Britain’s role in the world at this time from the grandeur of the Regency sitting room, where one could imagine reclining and reflecting on the growing empire.
In contrast, the kitchen and scullery illustrate the ‘upstairs downstairs’ lifestyle of Victorian England. The kitchen is very much still working and hosts popular children’s activities throughout the year, including ‘Bake Back in Time’ where the original coal-fired range is still in use.
The museum does not yet offer diversity in terms of class, race or sexual orientation but nor does it claim to, it is a small local museum and it fulfils its brief beautifully. A visit to the Holst Birthplace Museum will leave you feeling emotionally and intellectually comforted, and will doubtless provoke a desire for further study of this period.
The start of this year was a particularly exciting time to visit the museum as they recently started a Victorian book group, as well as knitting and various family activities. At the time of writing, the museum is closed, but is active online and sharing objects of the week, including ‘Pigs’ - a painting by George Morland. Additionally, the museum has been sharing online tutorials on Victorian gardening, baking and children’s crafts such as thaumatrope (optical illusion toys) and parachute making. It is fabulous to see a small local museum innovating and embracing technology at such a challenging time.
Once lockdown is over, it’s definitely worth a visit!
Situated close to Pittville Park, the location is a real strength of this museum. One could choose to explore the park and the plant life, perhaps taking time to consider the Fern mania or ‘pteridomania’ that consumed the middle classes of Britain in Holst’s time. The location in Cheltenham is also convenient for a visit to the nearby Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Location: Holst Birthplace Museum, 4 Clarence Road, Cheltenham, GL52 2AY
Approx. 1 min walk from Pittville Gate bus stop, or 4 mins walk from North Place Car Park
Admission: all tickets are annual passes - adults £7, children £2. Family tickets and concessions are also available
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am - 4pm (spring to December)
A braille guidebook and tours of the museum with hands-on facilities are available, and guide dogs are permitted
There is no lift, and due to the age of the building there are a lot of steps
Foreign Language Provision: printed materials are available in French, German, Japanese and Spanish
If a visit inspires you to find out more about Holst and the time in which he lived, here is my recommended further reading and listening:
Read: ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman and ‘Victorian House’ by Judith Flanders
Listen: ‘The Planets’ by Gustav Holst
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Gemma Hargraves is a History Teacher, A-level Examiner and charity trustee working in the West Midlands, UK. She has an interest in local history and museum education, and has previously volunteered for Heritage Open Days.